Popping Bubble Tea’s Bubble
The draw in bubble tea, the cheap, sweet, milky drink sold in specialty cafes and restaurants across America, has long been the “bubble,” the gelatinous tapioca balls that one chews on while drinking the tea.
But now, the bubble is losing popularity against unexpected rivals, such as lychee jelly, grass jelly and egg pudding, items that are even stranger than tapioca, and not normally associated with tea in the U.S.
Until recently, bubble tea mixed black tea with milk, sugary syrup and boiled, marble-sized tapioca balls. Though the original bubble tea first showed up about two decades ago in large Asian neighborhoods, it has since moved firmly into the mainstream in the U.S. and Europe. Last June, even McDonald’s began selling it at its restaurants in Germany. But in many shops in the U.S., bubble tea’s basic formula is no longer enough.
“People want something more exotic,” Brian Jiang, owner of Share Tea in Flushing, Queens, said in Chinese. One of his main menu items, “QQ Happy Family Milk Tea,” contains mango pudding, whole red beans, tapioca balls and grass jelly. The resulting drink, if not stirred well, leaves an inch of pudding and whole beans that customers have to scoop or tap out.
In the last year, Jiang said sales of lychee jelly and grass jelly in bubble tea rose 20 percent, while the sale of tapioca balls didn’t grow one bit. As for the plain ole bubble tea concoction, he said, “Maybe they just drank too much of it and got bored.”
Tapioca is made from the starch of cassava, a root crop grown mainly in Africa and South Asia. The tapioca balls used in bubble tea, also known as “boba,” are made mostly in China and Taiwan, then vacuum sealed and exported to the U.S.
Tawa Supermarket Co. Ltd., which has more than 30 stores in the states, imports bubble tea products from China and Taiwan and resells them to cafes and shops nationwide. With the dropoff in demand for ‘bubbles,’ tapioca sales have slipped 20 percent in the last three years, said Amanda Lin, a merchandising coordinator in the company.
At Oasis Tea Zone in Seattle, manager I-Miun Liu said that people from all cultures show up at his shop to drink bubble tea. Many customers now add egg pudding to the milk tea, while asking him to leave out the boba.
“These days, a lot of people don’t want that texture,” Liu said.
Last August, German researchers at the University Hospital Aachen published a study that claimed tapioca boba contained carcinogens and other harmful chemicals. Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration then came to the defense of its tapioca, saying that it does not contain cancer-causing chemicals.
Grass jelly, a slightly sweet dark burgundy gelatin, is one of the substitutes for boba now showing up in the U.S. It is made from stalks of the mesona chineensis plant, a type of mint touted in China and Taiwan for its supposed health benefits. It can be sucked through a straw with liquids easily, and requires none of the chewing tapioca requires.
Unusual jellies and puddings aren’t the only additions to bubble tea. Boba 7, a newly opened bubble tea shop in Los Angeles, adds alcohol to its tea, earning it quite the Internet buzz. The owner, Elton Keung, wanted to create a bar-like social atmosphere around the bubble tea shop. He said, “The honey boba in the drink serves to make it easier to drink the alcohol, not the other way around.”
Keung leaves it up to the customers to decide whether to have boba in their drinks. Some customers do prefer alcohol bubble tea with no boba, he said in a phone interview, but without it, even he thought Boba 7’s signature ‘Green Tea Heineken’ becomes simply beer.
“It kind of defeats the purpose of boba tea,” he said.
And then there’s Half and Half Tea House in Los Angeles, a bubble tea store that has more than 1,000 Yelp reviews. Its most popular drink is the “ice milk drink,” which, according to employee Jeremy Yuan, contains not even tea.
“There’s only milk, ice, brown sugar, boba and egg pudding,” he said.
With more choices, it seems, the customers are not only getting rid of the bubbles in bubble tea; they’re now getting rid of the tea altogether.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgFebruary 15, 2013